change and careers work - a paradigm shuffle?

careers work needs a new narrative

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Bill Law
18 May 2012

Bill Law
The Career-learning Café

The opening paragraph in an article on change, like this one, is where you can expect to read about unfulfilled predictions of change.  They are blind alleys, such as these...

  1. an anticipation that came to nothing;
  2. an innovation that turned out not to be new;
  3. a social change that petered out;
  4. a warning dismissed as fraudulent;
  5. some engineering that wobbled or collapsed;
  6. some science that was never replicated.

They make popular stories because they are reassuring.  The doom-mongers were wrong.  So were the romantic optimists.  Life goes on.  We’re still struggling, but we’re still here...

plus ça change, plus c’est la méme chose

It’s a comfort.  And - in case you need it - this article makes six attempts to get you out of that comfort zone.

1.            an anticipation that is dangerously right

Social ethnographer Gillian Tett is among the few commentators to predict the credit crunch.  The few documented risk-avoidance in financial services.  But the many took no notice, because the anticipation didn’t fit with neo-liberal assumptions - about commercial expansion making everything possible.  So the few were set aside.  But they were right.

The consequences for work-life are out-of-control.  And the damage to government budgeting is making public-service careers work close-to-impossible to maintain.  Indeed, private careers-coaching is taking over - it’s already a big-dollar global industry.  Would you say that any of this is worth our professional careers-work attention?

2.            an innovation that changes how people learn

Practically everything is getting digitised - from friendship to fine art.  We can digitise relationships, games, and subversion.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s how people find out what’s going on, and figure out what to do about it.  They can update by the hour - and often need to.  So it’s easy to think of all this as no more than a useful tool - nothing to worry about, more of an opportunity than a challenge.

And, for a time careers work colonised it, exporting what it does into its new handy formats - word-processors, data-bases, spreadsheets.  But people may well feel now that they’re getting as much information and advice as they need - and in interactive formats.  And that digital territory is not only occupied by inhabitants, it is invaded by predators.  Professional careers workers can best help by enabling them critically to interrogate the information and influences they find.  Time, do you think, to nail the myth that the digitised can replace the direct-and-personal professional?

3.            a social change that brings cultural turbulence

In a stagnant economy opportunity becomes a zero-sum game - one person’s gain is another’s loss.  Life gets more competitive.  People pull back into a protected spaces.  We become strangers to each other.  Experience is documented as turbulent - unconnected, uncivil, unpredictable, and unsafe.  Élites become suspect:  politicos, attorneys, academics, and even medicos are second-guessed.  But we like to remember that we are social animals.  So, no worries, it’s just that we’re good at adapting to necessity.

But surely work-life is nothing if not social.  Isn’t it done with, for and in response to other people?  Yes, but with a tighter and more immediate focus - ‘me’, ‘my family’ and ‘our kin’.  Conventional career-planning doesn’t fit to that.  And the background turbulence - some say ‘chaos’ - seems to undermine the possibility of a plan.  Well, maybe not entirely; but, if not, isn’t it time to re-think what we can offer?

4.             warnings that we dare not ignore

The most persistent warnings we hear concern well-being and risk - for communities, species and the biosphere.  But such warnings are easily neutralised - by well-placed outfits whose interests are threatened.  Anything can be rubbished by drawing on sponsored research, yielding large-sample ‘significance’, promoted by client-compliant consultants.  The issues get ducked.

Is it possible that careers work colludes with some of this?  The diagnostic apparatus of employability plays to the interests of competitive marketing.  And labour-market information doesn’t include ratings of work-life’s carbon footprints.  And this is not just about emissions.  Damage is done to African villages, developing-world sweatshops, and home neighbourhoods - where lives are blighted and people are discarded.  Careers work deals in such consequences - from the personal to the planetary.  Any need, might we wonder, to re-think what we mean by independent assessment and impartial information?

5.             engineering that changes more than we think

Alan Turing invented what we now call the computer.  He also designed a test for knowing whether computers are intelligent - a test that no computer has ever passed.  But global corporations use the technology to transfer gazillions of dollars from one side of the globe to the other - in micro-seconds.   And, as you may have noticed, the same technology can quickly off-load any risk.  But global corporations smile the same smiles, and make the same promises.

Corporate wealth can exceed government wealth several times over.  And the processing speed and power of computers explains much of that policy weakness and corporate strength.  The rebalancing of power is transforming the working world - access to markets, cheap labour, polarised incomes, economic migration and global shifts in dominance.  Would that kind of information be of any use or interest to your students and clients?  Would it still be careers work?

6.             science that changes everything

For the big scientific news we need to go back to Charles Darwin.  His ideas never supported crude doctrines for the survival of the fittest.  But genetics and neurology has transformed psychological, sociological and economic thinking.  Nonetheless, at first his book The Origin of Species was thought to be useful to pigeon fanciers but ecclesiastically unacceptable.  A kindly man, he had a bad time with it.

But he changed how we know ourselves - and knowing ourselves is a central careers-work concern.  The behaviour sciences that Charles Darwin has most influenced are the three that careers work most persistently calls on.  Genetics is transforming the way we can talk about consciousness, freedom and autonomy.  None can any longer mean what we used to mean by decision-making.  We’re catching-up - but slowly.

where do we go from here?

Those times, they were a-changing - more than Bob Dylan, and a lot of other people, ever knew.  The most dangerous negations of change rely on habits-of-mind - which are as dangerous for the future of careers work as for any.  We need to re-shape our expertise and re-state our credibility.  Might that mean.... 

  •  re-positioning ourselves in relation to government and corporate interests?
  •  shifting focus from an authoritative content to a questioning process?
  • establishing the social enterprises needed following world-wide privatisation?

It would be a start on a radically changing story.  And we need that story to be distinctive - separating us from predation and constraint, and pursuing ready-for-anything flexibility. 

The word ‘career’ offers such a narrative.  It means both ‘race’ and ‘journey’.  Two stories, but one has the bigger and more distinctive idea.  The clue is this: we can interrupt a journey with a race, but we can’t interrupt a race with a journey.  The smaller idea can be carried by the bigger one.

And the only possible format for setting out a journey is a narrative.  So, are you sitting uncomfortably?

You’ve guessed that I doubt that we’ve done enough on extending the careers-work story.  There have been, it’s true, one or two attempts to characterise careers-work development as a paradigm shift.  But they are exaggerated: more-of-the-same, but decorated with flattering bells and enticing whistles.  A paradigm shift is a lot more troublesome than that.  Charles Darwin finally faced it.  The Descent of Man doesn’t do much for pigeon fanciers - but it changes everything else. 

We’ll find out soon enough whether or not we are facing a paradigm shift.  We’re bound to notice.  My bet is that, at the very least, we’re on a paradigm shuffle.

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